Under the Sand (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoopy's comments in white: 

Major spoilers. I'm going to tell you the entire movie. Given that the plot is more or less irrelevant to your appreciation of the film, the spoiling is probably not a negative thing, but if you don't like spoilers, stop reading.

A middle-aged French woman (Charlotte Rampling) and her husband take their summer vacation at the beach. The opening moments are filled with the comfortable ennui that older couples settle into after years of marriage. They don't have much to say to each other that they haven't already said, but their discourse is loving and pleasant. They set up their summer hope and prepare for another summer like many before.

The next day, she's tanning when he goes for a swim. She fall asleep. He never returns.

The rest of the film is about her attempts to deal with the emotional trauma of this incident, and the filmmaker's effort to place us inside her POV. Is he dead, or did he walk away? If he is dead, did he commit suicide? The wife doesn't much care for the options. If he's alive, that means he walked away from her forever, without a word, after 25 years. If he committed suicide, she can't help but feel the weight of the responsibility. Even if he drowned accidentally, she can't seem to deal with the grief.

So she pretends that he has never gone. Her life continues as if he were just off on a business trip. At times, she sees him and talks to him. The director is deliberately ambiguous about the meaning of her denial. Is she losing her grip on reality? Maybe. Or maybe she's just doing what we all do when our significant partner is missing from our lives, and we feel lonely. Sometimes we have imaginary conversations with them as if they were there. As Freud's short cousin, Sleepy Freud, used to say, there's nothing insane about talking to God. It's only when God starts talking back that you have to worry. Or, to be more scientific about it, imaginary conversations and fantasies can be therapeutic as long as you realize that they are imaginary and fantastic. Does the wife realize it? The filmmaker is non-committal.

Marie meets with her husband's crotchety elderly mother, and the old buzzard seems to think her son was unhappy with the marriage, and just walked out. Marie prefers the suicide theory.  Neither theory fits the facts of the case. It seems quite certain that the husband simply went for a swim and drowned.  The police investigators eventually find a body, the husband's swimming trunks, and his watch. There us a perfect DNA match with the husband's mother. The husband could not have walked out of the marriage. He simply went for a swim and had asked his wife to go on that fatal swim with him. The only reason he was alone is that she happened to be tired. And the husband did not commit suicide because the coroner found that he struggled mightily against drowning, but was overcome. The suicide and abandonment angles are merely Hitchcockian macguffins which exist to show how Marie's own psychology is operating, not to overlay a mystery into the plot. The film is not a mystery at all. It simply uses a bit of ambiguity from time to time as a device to place the audience into the wife's point of view.

There are some other moments evocative of Hitchcock or Peter Weir, in which routine everyday events take on a powerful significance that they would not have without the context of the missing man. For example, when Marie gets her annual check-up, the doctor's office asks her to pay for her husband's appointment as well. "What?", she thinks, "When was that appointment?" You can sense her hope that the date of his appointment would be after the disappearance, and then feel her utter despair when she realizes the appointment took place immediately before they left for the beach, meaning that he may have killed himself because of some unnamed medical fear that he could not share with her.

The film is essentially a character study about the wife's coping, or failure to cope. In the doctor's office she seeks some evidence that her husband is still alive. In the police station, she refuses to accept even the scientific evidence of his death. For example, she says that the watch isn't her husband's. The policeman says, "But you already identified the swimming trunks, and this watch is a perfect match for the description you gave us". She can offer no sensible answer. Her position is that she bought the watch for her husband, and if it were his, she "would know it".

In the final scene, the wife returns to the spot on the beach where she last saw her husband alive. As she looks out to the ocean, then up the deserted beach, then down it, she spies a solitary man in the distance. From her faraway perspective, it appears to her to be her husband. She runs toward the man, the camera stays where she was originally. As she becomes a small figure in the distance, the film ends. 


Charlotte Rampling shows her breasts from several angles, and there is a completely nude woman on the beach.

This ending, of course, is totally ambiguous. Did she really see the figure or is it one of her imaginary moments? Does she really run to it, or does she just imagine herself running to it? Is she seeing a dead man, and running to join him in death, thus symbolizing her own suicide? Is it simply a case of mistaken identity that she desperately clings to as a ray of hope? We don't know.

My guess is that she committed suicide because she was so obsessed with that subject and it was so powerfully foreshadowed in the film. But any number of other interpretations would fit.

The reason I wrote out that complete "spoiler" description is because I'm about to tell you that this is a terrific movie, and you need to know precisely what kind of terrific movie, so you won't blame me for renting something that, to you, totally sucks.  I was impressed with the film. Most movie reviewers were impressed with it as well, and many other people with similar tastes will love it. On the other hand, most people will not enjoy it at all. My job is to help you determine whwther you are in the small circle of people that will love it, or outside the circle with the average filmgoer. So understand what kind of film it is. It has no plot to speak of, and no action of any kind. It has a mini-mystery, but the mystery only exists to help you understand the mental state of the character. Charlotte Rampling is on camera nearly every minute of the film, and it all takes place within her POV, some of it in the objective world, but much of it entirely in her head. If you might like that kind of film, this is an excellent one.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.78:1

  • Full-length director commentary

  • interview with Charlotte Rampling

  • The film is primarily in French (some English), with English sub-titles

Tuna's comments in yellow

The short version of my review is "me too." I also think it is very well done,  I enjoyed it, but don't think most moviegoers will be interested. For this film to work, it was vital that the audience immediately like Charlotte Rampling's character, and care about her. The film was scripted such that it had a maximum amount of ambiguity start to finish, asking the audience to figure it out and make decisions about what is really happening. Rampling was perfect in the role, but was more than likely cast because she was one of the few women her age who would agree to wearing a bathing suit on the beach, and doing the nude love scenes. Of course, she has a body that many much younger women would be happy with.

The film ends with a final ambiguity. She has seen proof that her husband died of accidental drowning in a rip current, but she rejects the evidence. In the final scene, she is staring at the ocean, at the exact spot her husband disappeared. She sees a man way down the beach and runs toward him.

Scoop figured that she commits suicide after the film ends. It is a valid possibility, but I think she made the decision to keep her husband with her by not accepting his death, and to live the rest of her life with his memory for company. At any rate, if you can get past the US obsession with youth being synonymous with beauty, Charlotte looked very good, and managed to look sexy in the love scenes, especially in the one where she was on top, and somewhat in charge.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3.5/4, BBC 3/5.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 90% positive reviews. 100% from the top critics. It may be the best-reviewed film of the year.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.6 
  • With their dollars ... according to the IMDb, it is still in some theaters as I write this, but the cumulative gross is only a bit over a million dollars.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a classic C+ (both reviewers). Most people will not like this movie because it make no effort to be a commercial mass-audience product. It is art, not commerce. When I use the word 'art', I don't mean to lead you into thinking it is a work of contrivance by a poseur. It is not an abstruse, pretentious piece of Euro-drivel. It is an excellent, simple film about the central character's reaction to her husband's disappearance, and her sense of being alone in the world. It's "The Twilight Zone" for intellectuals.

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